to Work: An Interview with Carol Berkenkotter
By Mark Hall
Carol Berkenkotter, Professor of Rhetoric and Composition at Michigan Technological University, is a Visiting Professor in the U of L Department of English this semester. She is the co-winner of the 1996 National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Scientific and Technical Writing and the co-author of Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication: Cognition, Culture, Power.
Dr. Berkenkotter has also published several articles on writing in the disciplines. She is currently at work on a new book on the rhetoric of psychiatric classification. Berkenkotter is especially interested in the ways teachers introduce students to the work and writing in their disciplines. She proposes a view of academic disciplines not as discrete, unitary entities but as complex, heterogeneous networks of activities. This perspective is based upon activity theory, a model that invites us to examine the material components associated with writing, including the institutional settings, tools, artifacts, generic practices, and products.
Recently, Dr. Berkenkotter talked with us about the ways activity theory might help teachers in the disciplines think about the teaching of writing. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
WR: In general, what does an activity theory perspective buy you?
CB: It can help make people foreground the immediate setting, in terms of goals, practices that are coming out of that setting, tools and artifacts within each setting, rules and conventions that are appropriate to various kinds of communication in the setting, the institution itself that the setting is a part of, which is very, very important.
WR: What are the implications of an activity theory perspective for teachers of writing in the disciplines?
CB: In those university settings where there’s more and more involvement of students in faculty research—which is a really exciting reform movement—it has, I think, important implications for writing across curriculums. Students are actually participating in research settings, or what some of my colleagues are calling communities of practice. These students are starting to understand what people think and do when they do research on a problem set.
Let’s suppose, for example, that there’s a Super Fund site [an environmental cleanup funded by the EPA] near a university, and the university is asked to contribute its expertise in terms of understanding the extent not only of the damage but also of the impact of being a Super Fund site—on the economy and the viability of communities surrounding that site.
Then you have what’s called a fuzzy problem set that requires interdisciplinary environmental research that brings together the fields of biology, materials engineering, sociology, social psychology, accounting, business, journalism—all these professions or disciplines are conceivably involved. And students are gathering data on the damage in the area by taking samples of sediments or water—this might be in a chemistry class or in a biology class. They’re looking at marine life in the lake, which means they’re involved in limnology as well as zoology. You also have students who are being asked to interview people in the community on the kinds of participatory roles they would take in cleaning up the Super Fund site, because the EPA is indicating more and more that communities have to be active partners in the cleanup.
So now what does this have to do with writing in the disciplines on a daily basis? It means that with help from faculty from across the curriculum, we must examine critically what people in various university settings do, and what students do when faculty members train the students, work with them on a daily basis, and get them involved in complex and messy problems. I think that’s a movement that’s happening all across the United States.
WR: How then might we better serve students writing in the disciplines and preparing to write in professional settings outside the university?
CB: I guess the most important question to ask is how does language in the broadest sense—talk, written inscription, multimedia, computer-generated—accomplish the work of the classroom, lab or other setting in its disciplinary context. That’s the question I’d want faculty to begin with. When you ask faculty to think about what the work is, from their disciplinary perspective, then they start to focus on, of course, their objectives and goals, and the necessary actions to achieve desired outcomes. It’s that notion of work that’s really at the heart of activity theory. How’s the work of the setting being accomplished by language? That’s something that’s very concrete.
WR: Your suggestion that we critically examine the work that’s being done is very interesting. Teachers often focus first on the generic forms that language takes in their disciplines. But you’re asking us to consider first the questions of function: What are you doing? What do you want to accomplish with that language? Thinking about language in terms of work really does bring it down to earth in a way that a lot of theoretical discussions of writing and the uses of writing and the teaching of writing don’t.
CB: I think that’s very, very true. It also points to what’s the problem with just teaching genres in the disciplines, saying here are the genres that we’re using, just follow these, because then you’re teaching templates. Templates don’t even begin to deal with the relationship between work and the setting, the social activity that surrounds work.
For more information
on activity theory and how it relates to writing, see the special issue
of Mind, Culture, and Activity 4.4 (December 1997) .
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